The Boys started life as a 2006 comic book series, penned by Garth Ennis and drawn by Darick Robertson. The series run finished in 2012, and 2019 brings a new Amazon TV series.
“A group of vigilantes set out to take down corrupt superheroes who abuse their superpowers. The Boys is set in a universe where superpowered people are recognized as heroes by the general public and owned by powerful corporation Vought International, which ensures that they are aggressively marketed and monetized.”
The Boys sets a new television benchmark not just for Amazon serials but superhero franchises in general. It’s relentlessly gritty, sometimes disgusting, and always compelling. It feels like Watchmen on overdrive. The action is carefully paced, weaving between multiple plots. Our introduction to this universe is Hugh Campbell (played by Jack Quaid), whose partner is accidentally killed by A-Train (Jessie Usher) – aka the fastest man alive. A-Train is a member of The Seven; the equivalent of the Justice League, which is operated by Vought International. As Hugh discovers through his contact with Billy Butcher (played by Karl Urban) The Seven are not as clean cut as they appear. The “accident” with Hugh’s partner pretty much sets the standard for some of the grosser moments in The Boys (A-Train literally runs through Hugh’s girlfriend, reducing her to mush – you don’t see the Flash do that very often!). Meanwhile, Annie January (aka Starlight – Erin Moriarty) joins The Seven, and is subjected to a sexual assault by her childhood hero, The Deep (Chace Crawford). She finds very little support from the only other female member of The Seven, Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott). All of this is overseen by the apparently noble Homelander (Anthony Starr). On the surface equal parts Captain America and Superman, Homelander is in truth the series’ ultimate supervillain.
There’s a lot going on in The Boys, but the plot is very easy to follow. The various series strands interweave brilliantly. There’s no flab on this 8-part series, which I found extremely refreshing. The latter additions to the Netflix Marvel universe really suffered from this (with side-episodes spent exploring backstories of supporting characters), so it was great to see The Boys doesn’t fall into this trap at all. Sometimes a short, sharp series is better and The Boys demonstrates that well.
The casting is all-round excellent but the real show-stealers have to be Karl Urban and Anthony Starr. Urban’s character initially verges on comic relief, which is a brilliant misconception. There’s a lot more to Billy Butcher and his motivation is revealed in a trickle – by the end of the series arc, he is far from comic. Meanwhile, Anthony Starr’s Homelander is just terrifying. Homelander Superman without morality and without compunction. What would someone with Superman’s powers do if they lacked a moral compass? The Boys goes fully down that avenue. The juxtaposition between Homelander’s supposed upbringing (the product of a nuclear family from small-town America, given his powers by God) and the reality (grown in a sterile lab without friends or family) demonstrates both why Homelander is a dysfunctional psychopath, and acts as a commentary on the commodification of the superhero genre. These heroes are literal gods among men, and they view those around them as relevant only to approval ratings, income streams and the interests of Vought International. Every scene in which Homelander appears will come to send a shiver down your spine. The showdown in episode 8 between Butcher and Homelander is completely horrifying but awesomely played by both Urban and Starr. (As an aside, I’ve always thought Karl Urban would make a superb Conrad Harris from The Lazarus War! Does anyone agree with me? Well, Amazon, TV rights are still available…)
But excellent casting only goes so far. You also need decent dialogue. The Boys succeeds on this front as well. This isn’t a series that relies on long scenes of character dialogue and that’s a good thing in my view – by the end of Game of Thrones, too much on-screen chat had become a real hindrance. The Boys’ dialogue is sometimes emotional, often hilarious and always snappy. Billy Butcher’s analogy between The Boys and the Spice Girls in episode 4 is both hilarious and poignant (especially when the Spice Girls are referenced later in the series).
Beneath the violent gloss and superhero veneer, The Boys also has a deeper message. It’s about accountability of those in (and with) power. It’s about responsibility to the people. So many very current themes are woven into the story arc – from Starlight’s encounter with The Deep reflecting the “MeToo” movement, to Homelander’s absolute lack of impunity and accountability, and the power shift from government to big corporations. These issues are there if you want to see them and they don’t bog down the plot.
Overall, you need to watch The Boys. It’s a dark, compelling and highly-entertaining series that doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. At the time of writing, I’ve just heard that The Boys has been approved for a second series. This is tremendous news because I really need to see where the story is going after the ending of episode 8…